Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Eighteenth Presidency!, The" (1928)
Author:
Blake, David Haven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"The Eighteenth Presidency! Voice of Walt Whitman to each Young Man in the Nation, North, South, East, and West" occupies a unique position in Walt Whitman's writings, for while the essay stands as the poet's most historically specific critique of American political culture, it remained unpublished until 1928, when it was published separately in both France and the United States and was included in Clifton Furness's edition of unpublished manuscripts, Walt Whitman's Workshop. Responding to the 1856 presidential race involving Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, and John C. Frémont, the manifesto was distributed in proof to several editors, but never actually printed. Whether Whitman grew disenchanted with the essay's biting tone or simply failed to raise the funds necessary for publication remains a significant biographical mystery. For all the ambiguity surrounding its lack of publication, however, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" offers compelling insight into the political anger and anxiety Whitman felt in the 1850s. Leaves of Grass at times expresses similar sentiments, but for the most part it labors to transcend them. The essay, in this respect, can be considered the prose counterpart of the poem "Respondez!" (1856). The two works maintain highly ironic, satirical visions of American politics, and Whitman eventually excluded them both from his official canon.

Although Furness suggested that Whitman had written parts of "The Eighteenth Presidency!" before 1856, the essay's intensity and sense of national apocalypse closely match the country's mood that year. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 sharply divided the nation along sectional lines, and two years later, Kansas's status as either a free or slave state became the focus of physical conflict on the Kansas-Missouri border and in the Senate chamber itself. "The Eighteenth Presidency!" imputes this violence to the nation's political parties and their inability to overcome the constitutional crises. Addressing America's farmers, laborers, carpenters, and mechanics, the essay points to the gap between the general public and the presidential nominating committees, charging the political establishment with sacrificing the nation's heritage for partisan expediency. Displaying what Betsy Erkkila has described as the self-serving arguments of many Northern abolitionists, Whitman urged his readers to recognize slavery's threat to their own political and economic freedom. "[A]bolish slavery," he cautioned white American workers, "or it will abolish you" (Whitman 1322).

The essay's urgency surfaces most prominently in its caustic and rancorous language. While Whitman's readers are accustomed to his explicit challenges to the presidency, nowhere in Leaves of Grass would they be prepared for presidents eating "dirt and excrement" while sitting on cushions of "filth and blood" (1310) or political delegates wracked with syphilis and crawling like serpents across the earth. David Reynolds has traced such statements to the spirit of agitation promoted by reformers during the 1850s. As Kerry Larson has argued, however, Whitman's rhetoric also betrays his own confusion about the political and constitutional dilemmas facing the country. While section 10 of "Song of Myself" depicts the poet as harboring a runaway slave, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" remains ambivalent about the desire to resist slavery's expansion and the need to obey federal law. Whitman, in fact, advises Americans to defy the Fugitive Slave Law with everything from pens to guns, but at the same time he warns that fugitives must be returned in deference to the Constitution. The essay's clearest message may be that while its author is anxious to abolish slavery, he has little sense of how to extract it from the federal Union.

It is fitting, then, that "The Eighteenth Presidency!" tends to depict moral and political controversy as a conflict between generations. In characterizing the 1856 presidential race, Whitman denounces Buchanan and Fillmore not for their partisan platforms, but for their corruption and age. The candidates become "two dead corpses" that "guide by feebleness and ashes" a nation of "live and electric men" (1325). The nominating committees come from "political hearses," the "shrouds inside of the coffins," and the "tumors and abscesses of the land" (1313). In contrast to the 1855 Preface's image of a "wellshaped heir," the youthful poet proudly assuming his station after acknowledging his father's corpse, the bitter young citizens of "The Eighteenth Presidency!" are haunted by bodies that refuse to stay buried and unnaturally rule the earth. As Arthur Golden has suggested, Whitman's vision of a vibrant new race rising to thwart such civic decay serves only to obfuscate his incisive cultural critique. The true crisis of 1856 is that an incompetent, diseased generation threatens to emasculate the nation's youth by keeping them from the republican principles that Whitman considered their birthright.

Whitman's disgust for both Buchanan and Fillmore arises from his conviction that in the country's currently fragile state party platforms were of "no account" and the "right man" was "every thing" (1318). The times demanded a leader who would make "a bold push" (1308), and while the essay refrains from making a specific endorsement, it addresses its discussion of an ideal candidate to John Frémont, the newly formed Republican Party's nominee. The "Redeemer President," Whitman advises, must strive to preserve the rights of both individuals and states (1321). As the representative of the people rather than his party, he must be inclusive, not exclusive, and in this respect, he would return the government to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These spirited, but vague instructions are indicative of the essay's general preference for discussing the character of potential leaders as opposed to their ideas. Whitman envisions the nation's redeemer as a heroic, bearded Westerner who might cross the Alleghenies and walk into the presidency wearing a working suit and a tan (1308). The image strongly recalls Abraham Lincoln, who in 1856 had yet to establish a national reputation. Scholars have variously praised the passage for being somehow clairvoyant, but perhaps a sounder conclusion would be that it helps explain why Whitman would find such profound meaning in Lincoln's presidency: the poet had called for this representative man long before one had made himself known.

"The Eighteenth Presidency!" is critical to understanding the relations between Whitman's political and poetic sensibilities. The essay's elevation of character over platform and of personality over ideology strongly resembles the trans-partisan vision of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's call for a Redeemer President shares much with his projection of a vitally inclusive, national bard. Like the poet of democracy, the Redeemer President promises to represent America's disenfranchised public rather than its political parties. Indeed, while it makes no mention of poetry or Leaves of Grass, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" subtly engages in the similar task of yoking its political commentary with civic self-promotion. The author emerges as a figure who faithfully respects the principles of representation he finds lacking in the culture at large. From his mouth, Whitman announces, Americans can "hear the will of These States" (1323). "The Eighteenth Presidency!" ably demonstrates that this civic persona was useful to the poet across an array of genres and discursive settings.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Furness, Clifton Joseph, ed. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. 1928. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

Golden, Arthur. "The Obfuscations of Rhetoric: Whitman and the Visionary Experience." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 88–102.

Grier, Edward F. Introduction. The Eighteenth Presidency! Ed. Grier. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1956. 1–18.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. "The Eighteenth Presidency!" Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 1307–1325.


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